Days ago my good OS friend nerd cred posted a compelling post called My Parking Lot Encounter with a Tall, Bearded Black Man. It is an extremely well-written account of her encounter with a fellow Minnesotan in a parking deck and her response to his clearly rude behavior.
Rarely am I unable to immediately comment on a post that touched me as deeply as this one did. But this one created the need for me to wrestle down my own feelings, my own struggles with the topic: fear of black males in the American culture. When I finally thought it through, my comment to nerd cred became an entire blog post.
nerd cred taught herself not to respond fearfully to the approach of a black stranger by remembering a lesson she had learned decades ago – black males are people; people have feelings; recoiling white women and purse-clutching women of all shades cause innocent African American males to feel diminished. So, despite her conditioning to the contrary, developed during her residency in the greater Washington, D.C. area, cred de-conditioned her flight or fright responses to the sight of a black man in a strange environment.
I recently wrote about a rape that occurred just a block away from my home. The police told me when I saw them canvassing the neighborhood that the alleged rapist was a black male, 5’5” –5’6” inches tall and wearing dreadlocks. Although that incident occurred at 3:30 a.m., it got my attention and reignited my general concern about my own personal safety as I move through my daily routine.
The very next day, as I reached the top of the hill that is my cross street while walking my dog, a black man with dreadlocks, no more than an inch or so taller than my own 5’4” walked toward me. He is not unfamiliar. I have seen him at least a dozen times walking purposefully from one end of the neighborhood to the other. He is filthy and appears somewhat incoherent.
“Holy crap, could THAT be the guy who raped that woman on April 1st?"
“I should call 911. He fits the description perfectly. Please stop coming toward me!”
“But what if he’s not the rapist? How are you going to feel about calling the cops on the guy, who will undoubtedly accuse you of profiling him because he is black, like the guy did who kept ringing your doorbell at 11 p.m. one night and wouldn’t go away? He did that knowing full well that you are black, too.”
By the time I concluded this internal dialogue the man was two blocks down the street. I didn’t call 911 and that didn’t feel right at all, either. I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
The truth is – and this is about as tough an admission as I’ve ever made on this blog – I, too, fear black men who I don’t recognize as being a neighbor and who carry themselves in a certain way, drive certain old General Motors cars slowly through the neighborhood with three other guys in the car, and wear a certain kind of pseudo-prison garb with their baseball caps all askew.
Once, years ago, I was driving my son to the airport here in Atlanta. As we left our own neighborhood and rolled into a decidedly rougher part of the city, we approached a corner where a group of three or four black youths were just standing, watching the traffic. I am told that I reached for the automatic door lock, probably to make sure the doors were locked.
“Why’d you do that?!" my son asked, sounding annoyed.
“Do what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
The gaze he leveled my way spoke volumes about what he was feeling on behalf of those young men standing on the corner. Diminished. Accused. Suspected.
After examining my conscience, I knew why I’d done what I’d done.
Car-jacking has been a fear of mine ever since I moved to Atlanta 19 years ago. Car-jackings were on the evening news almost every day. The descriptions of the perpetrators are always – not mostly, but always – the same: black male or males, wielding a gun. “Uniformed” black males watching traffic on the corner immediately set off my radar. The oversized tee shirts are worn that way to conceal the guns some gangbangers carry in their underwear waistbands. Danger. Danger. Danger.
If I were at what was once my office building in Midtown Atlanta and one of those same guys entered the elevator I was already on, I would be terrified. If one of those same guys came and sat next to me on an otherwise empty MARTA train car, I would go on guard.
All this to say I think most of us try hard to be fair and nonjudgmental. Of course there are racists who believe Barack Obama himself would be capable of robbing them in an elevator, but that’s not who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about all the liberals and progressive who frequent this web site, regardless of color. I believe we all like to think we are not fearful, but, in fact, we are.
Two days ago, on another morning walk with the dog, I noticed a squad car pull up in front of the retired Deputy Chief of Police’s house. Probably an old co-worker just stopping by, I thought. Thirty minutes later, on my return to the block, there were three squad cars and six officers in front of the house talking to Lou, the retired DCOP.
When I got home I checked my email and, sure enough, Lou had sent out an email to the neighborhood Yahoo Group explaining he had walked in on a burglar at around 9 a.m. He described the burglar as a white male, 45, driving a white pickup truck. He also had the license plate number, like any good cop would.
I smiled to myself for two reasons:
1) For once the description of the wrongdoer was not a black male…
2) …which is the very reason the burglar was able to get into the neighbor’s house unmolested. Seeing a mature adult white male driving a pickup truck looking around a neighbor’s property happens every day. We assume he is a meter reader, or a contractor who has been hired by the homeowner. If the guy had been black or Latino, the neighbor next door would have called the police in a heartbeat.
One day, before I sold my big house, my neighbor called me on the phone to tell me there was a homeless man looking into my windows. It was broad daylight. I asked which window. I went to that window. All I could see was the man who had been doing my yard work for the past 15 years.
I called the neighbor back and asked her to describe the man. She said he was wearing camo-fatigues and walked with a pronounced limp. I burst out laughing. When I recovered I explained the man she was “reporting” was my yard man who she has seen there every week for some 780 weeks! Homeless? Hardly!
We all talk a good game. Some writers sound holier than thou about race issues, ready to categorize all racially tinged issues in distinct little boxes: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, liberal, conservative, racist, tolerant. Who are we kidding?
I never told my yard man about that phone call. He is a United States Marine and proud of it. He does exceptional work and is as loyal as they come. He has been stopped by our very own private security patrol and had his duffle bag searched because someone reported their newspaper stolen from their front porch. (That made me so angry I demanded and got him a public apology. The man has worked in this neighborhood for 20 years carrying a duffle bag!)
Can you imagine how diminished he would have felt to know he had been suspected of being a homeless peeping Tom?
America, we have a problem.